Doreen Fogle: Here’s a dogwood that doesn’t need water |

Doreen Fogle: Here’s a dogwood that doesn’t need water

Doreen Fogle

The dogwoods have been blooming so beautifully with those large pink or white saucer-shaped flowers covering long horizontal branches. They were always the sign that spring was here when I was growing up in Connecticut. The dogwoods bloomed as all the leaves of the oaks and maples leafed out.

The dogwoods in Connecticut are the same ones we plant in our landscapes here. Their scientific name is Cornus florida, and they’re native to most of the eastern seaboard. It rains year-round there, and we never had to water them. But here we need to put them into an irrigated landscape for them to survive.

No watering required

But there’s another dogwood you can plant that won’t need to be watered.

You might have noticed a dogwood that doesn’t live in a lawn. It’s one that grows in much of the west coast and in the Sierra. It’s called Pacific dogwood (Cornus nutallii) and is quite spectacular with big white flowers. It lives in the forests in some shade, often at the edge of forests, like many of us do.

It can get as tall as 50 feet and up to 20 feet wide. It may have a single trunk or some have several. It has horizontal branches that display the flowers so nicely, like the C. florida does, although the flowers are more spread out on the C. nutallii.

And since this one is native here, it doesn’t need to be watered once it’s established!

Plus, it supports some native wildlife and has showy fall foliage in reds to orange.

This is the one to plant if you have shade

While the eastern dogwood flowers better with full sun or a little afternoon shade, the Pacific dogwood is made for part shade. A perfect place for it is at the edge of the forest trees many of us live around. Those places that get just a few hours of sun or spotty sun throughout the day. It’s good under tall, high branched trees where it has access to some sun.

The shade is especially needed to protect the smooth gray bark from sunburn. In fact, this tree doesn’t like any injury to its bark, including pruning. Injuries would allow pests and disease to enter. So plant it and let it be.

Pretty spring flowers that aren’t flowers

While the eastern dogwood has a horizontal overall shape, the Pacific dogwood reaches a higher, more peaked shape, but with horizontal branches that seem to extend like arms around neighboring trees, to lay out its flowering branches for us all (and bees!) to view its flowers.

And those flowers…the white “petals” are not petals at all, but are bracts. And in the center of the bracts is a tight cluster of tiny real flowers that are greenish opening to yellow. The seeds are borne in a red fruit in late summer, which some birds like to eat.

Flowers for the native bees

Dogwoods are recognized by pollination ecologists as attracting large numbers of native bees. You may be asking “what are native bees?” I have written about how it’s the native bees that are the most important bees we need to protect and help. They are by far more efficient pollinators than non-native honey bees. And they are in peril, too. See my article, titled “Wild Bees: The Great Pollinators” on my website, under pollinators.

According to, our best reference for California native plants, the foliage supports (is eaten by) three to 35 species of butterflies and moths. This means their caterpillars eat some leaves and many become food for the birds.

This is a low maintenance tree

Plant pacific dogwood in well-draining soil that is high in natural organic matter. This would mean native soil that our pines and cedars grow in. And do not fertilize! Our native soils have all the right ingredients to support our native trees. Helping them could be detrimental.

Water deeply and very infrequently after planting for a year or two to get it established. Then don’t water it — it won’t be happy if you do. So this is really a plant that can live on its own at the edge of the forest in your drought tolerant landscape.

And avoid disturbing the soil within a few feet of the trunk.

One thing Pacific dogwood needs is good air circulation. It’s vulnerable to the fungus anthracnose. It doesn’t bother the trees in our area much, but it does in the wetter climates in the Pacific northwest. But be aware and plant it in a spot that will get decent air circulation to keep it healthy.

You will need to protect it from deer in the early years, either with fencing or Liquid Fence — applied religiously.

So, no pruning, no disturbing the soil near the trunk, no fertilizing, and once established, no watering. And what do you get for all that “effort”? Pretty spring flowers, flowers that are good for native bees and butterflies, leaves that support between three and 35 moths and butterflies that will feed the birds that are trying to feed their nestlings, fruits that feed the birds, and attractive fall foliage.

There are two wholesale nurseries that supply local nurseries that grow Pacific dogwood, which means that you might be able to get Pacific dogwood plants when they become available. Check the Redbud Chapter of the California Native Plant Society to see if there will be plants available at their Oct. 10 annual fall plant sale. Fall would be a perfect time to plant them.

Doreen Fogle is a landscape designer and writer in Nevada County. More of her articles can be found on her website and she can be reached at

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